“DEAR MOM. ONE day, I’ll make you proud. I promise.” A small dedication on the wall behind Sowetan teenager Zinhle Sithole sums it all up. She’s the subject of one of Jodi Bieber’s beautiful series of portraits that takes the whole model of an exhibition to a new level of engagement. It’s part of the Basha Uhuru Youth Festival in Hillbrow, and what you leave there in goosebumps and stifled tears, you get to take away in a poster of your choice.
Entitled Hashtag i or # i the exhibition comprises 45 photographed portraits of Johannesburg youngsters. But these are not just any formal portraits. While they have the energy and the kick that is Bieber’s signature, offering an engagement with the subject that makes you look into their eyes and empathise with their souls, this is not about Bieber, the artist at large.
Rather, it’s about the society’s youth. Curated and designed by Brenton Maart, each image in this exhibition is printed as a poster. The Bieber portrait has been reworked amidst positive and thoughtful descriptors, cell phone photographs and bits and bobs that define each young person. This one loves music, another is sensitised to the prevalence of children being raped, yet another comments on arm pit hair. Sithole believes she was born to lead, and that “we can reach higher and do things we never thought of doing”. # i AM WORDS, her poster declares. Another young person is #i AM PLEASANT. Yet another is #i AM HOPEFUL and another is # i AM DETERMINED.
While you may look at a project of this nature and possibly deem it twee, commenting that the graphic design holding the image is not always legible or successful, you need to see the whole project in person in order to engage its energies.
Exhibited on low wooden crates, each image is atop a pile of images, forcing you to bend down and focus on the words and the photograph. It’s not for sale: the images are free, and there is a cleavage between professionals and young people that is uplifting rather than patronising or one that forces a youngster into the limelight.
Sometimes art or theatre or photography pitched at young people seems to think that it should be made by young people. And when this happens, the axis is tilted away from professionalism and forces the work to slip into the shadow of amateurishness. But under able and intelligent curation and focus, this cannot happen: the youngsters are respected for the opinions, creativity and energy they have. But they’re also contained in the vision of a seasoned and skilled photographer.
As the sound from the permanent installations of what was once the isolation cells of the Women’s Gaol bleeds into this gallery space, you’re reminded of the blood and terror, of the broken people and utter cruelty that these walls were heir to under apartheid. It’s an astonishing building, constructed with Victorian principles of flow and aesthetics, and this horror and beauty conjoined with the fresh faces of 45 youngsters, will stay with you for a long time.